Next in Line: Tips for CEOs Cleaning Up After Controversy

Turnover at the top is bound to happen, but when a leader leaves amid controversy, the successor has a particularly tricky job. (Would you want to be the next VA secretary?) Priority number one for CEOs faced with a tough new gig: Regain trust.

It was a busy week for high-profile turnovers at the top of major organizations.

Last weekend, the National Basketball Association accepted the sale of the Los Angeles Clippers to former Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer, bringing an end to the Donald Sterling saga (sort of). Then, on Monday, President Obama announced Sloan Gibson as interim secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, replacing Gen. Eric Shinseki, who resigned last week following revelations that VA healthcare facilities had delayed care to veterans and covered it up.

Both Ballmer and Gibson now have the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of leaders who exited amid a wave of controversy. So how can they, or any other new chief executive, ensure a smooth transition?

“They’re both facing damage control—one is self-inflicted and the other is by circumstances, but the steps would be the same,” said executive coach Ann Ranson. “The first thing is to get out with the people immediately. Be honest, be transparent, and be quick. You don’t have to have all the right answers right away, but let them know that you’re there and you’re ready to roll your sleeves up and get to work.”

The tendency for most executives is to retreat, gather information, and slowly formulate the proper response to a situation, Ranson said. If the new CEO stays out of sight, “staff are going to make up a whole bunch of stories about what’s happening, and all that does is breed unrest, distrust, anxiety, and lack of performance among staff—all of the things that you don’t want to happen. So short-circuit that by getting in front of them right away.”

After the public introduction, Ranson suggested taking a more personal approach and getting to know employees.

“There’s so much research being done right now on the power of connection and empathy to engagement. So to me, the most important thing is to try to work at the cultural level,” she said. “You do that one conversation at a time, whether it’s 15 minutes a day and you’re going to see three people for five minutes or you’re just walking the halls and stop into different peoples’ cubicles to just touch base. You can’t put a value on that.”

And while working with staff, the new CEO should be developing a communication strategy, both internal and external, that addresses how the organization will move forward under new leadership.

“Be honest without oversharing,” said Ranson. “Craft a message that shows you’re human. ‘We’re all in this together, we’ve got this difficult situation going on. I promise you: I’ll be honest, I’ll be available.’ The more accessible you are, the more engaged and trusting employees and the public will be.”

From left: Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, Interim Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson. (Dennis Hamilton/Flickr, Fred Greaves/USO, Flickr)

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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